_Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle_. By Gregg
Andrews. University of Missouri Press, 2011, pp. 256, 10 illustrations,
bibliography, index. Cloth, 6-1/8" x 9-1/4". $40. ISBN 978-0-8262-1912-1.
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Mary Leah Christmas
Copyright (c) 2011 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
_Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle_ is the
latest book from Dr. Gregg Andrews, author of _City of Dust: A Cement
Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer_ (reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum
on 11 December 1996) and _Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging
a Company Town_ (reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum on 30 November 1999).
The city of Hannibal was not only the boyhood home of Samuel L. Clemens but
also the former place of residence of Thyra Edwards's grandparents, slaves
who escaped Hannibal by crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois and
then continuing via Underground Railroad to Galesburg. Edwards's
grandmother, Liza, had been "born a slave in Virginia around 1841 [and] had
come to Hannibal with her owner's family.... The exact date and town of her
birth are unknown" (8). Samuel L. Clemens's father, John Marshall Clemens,
was also born in Virginia. He arrived in northeast Missouri by way of
Kentucky and Tennessee. Hannibal appears briefly in the Thyra J. Edwards
book (8-10), with the narrative of her grandparents' quest for freedom
serving as part of the backdrop for Edwards's future life in Houston, Texas,
Edwards sought to exorcise her difficult childhood through "a peripatetic
search for the roots of oppression" (2). "Not even the deep sting of a
tyrannical father's razor strap could crush her rebellious spirit as a
child. Impulsive and impetuous, with magnificent charm, a restless spirit,
and zest for life, she set out on a spiritual quest for freedom that took
her around the world" (2). Edwards, in Houston, lit out from the territory
as soon as she had the chance. She later ascribed her father's "volatility
as a manifestation of frustrations over living in a Jim Crow society" (154).
"From crawfish ponds in Wharton, Texas, to the bright lights of European
capitals and the Kremlin, Edwards's rebellion against 'man's inhumanity to
man' was the driving force behind her global quest for freedom. As a black
woman and left-wing activist who negotiated in a white man's world, she
spoke truth to power and contributed significantly to the radical roots of
the post-1945 civil-rights movement" (179).
Like Mark Twain, Edwards's most meaningful education consisted of those
things that were self-taught through her journalistic pursuits. "She never
finished her college degree. A life of travel and intellectual inquiry
through field investigations and personal experiences meant more to her"
(2-3). Edwards traveled with her typewriter "at all times," even balanced on
her lap on train trips while she inquired and explored and wrote articles as
a freelance correspondent and frequent diarist (3, 54, 130, 162).
Edwards appointed herself a worldwide ambassador to those she viewed as
disadvantaged, oppressed, or dispossessed. Edwards's approach might not be
everyone's choice for the righting of wrongs, but she did as she deemed fit.
Edwards was investigated by the U.S. government (ix, 4, passim), due to her
affinities with certain elements within the labor movement. "Unlike most of
her activist contemporaries, she put her faith in the Communist Party and
trade unions as the political instruments of mass mobilization to tear down
the walls of racial segregation" (179), although "whether or not Edwards was
a Communist is not entirely clear" (180).
"For Edwards, the Spanish Civil War represented the central battleground in
the war against fascism. Risking her life on the ground in Spain, she
devoted her skills as an activist social worker, journalist, and fund-raiser
to the defense of Spain's elected Republican (or Loyalist) government, a
Popular Front coalition. Upon her return to the United States from her
month-long stay in Spain, she would tirelessly direct much of her political
energy toward fund-raising and promoting support for the Loyalists,
especially in the African American community" (100).
After the defeat of the Spanish Loyalists, "Edwards pressed ahead with plans
to spend six months in Mexico as a freelance writer to cover the
resettlement of Spanish refugees there and to write an autobiography" (130).
Forum members may recall that Andrews's previous books, _City of Dust: A
Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer_ and _Insane Sisters: Or, the
Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town_, involved issues of labor,
gender, class, and ethnicity. Dr. Andrews is Distinguished Professor
Emeritus of History at Texas State University-San Marcos, and as such has
done significant research into Houston's black longshoremen. It was in that
context he encountered the individual at the center of this current book
(vii). Dr. Andrews's wife, Dr. Victoria E. Bynum, also retired from Texas
State-San Marcos, is a professor specializing in gender, race, and class
relations in the 19th-century South and is author of _Unruly Women: The
Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South_. Put _Unruly Women_,
_Insane Sisters_, and _Thyra J. Edwards_ alongside each other, and one would
undoubtedly create an unusual, diagnostic triptych of distaff experience.
Thyra Edwards is described as an unconventional woman, an independent
woman--yes, even an unruly woman--who eschewed orthodoxy and questioned
authority. In other words: precisely Mark Twain's kind of folks.
_Thyra J. Edwards_ may not have the name recognition of Samuel L. Clemens,
but during her life she steeped herself in the human condition and
"paid...attention to the complexities of race" (14). "For Edwards...the
solution was not an individual but a collective one" (15), and "as was her
style, she immersed herself in their life stories" (134).
Much more can likely be drawn from gazing long and deep into the dual fires
of Mark Twain, "son of Hannibal," and Thyra Edwards, "grand-daughter of
Hannibal." Ruminating upon the dynamics of their respective lives, one
perceives that socioeconomics may have contributed to their divergent
outcomes, but the writings of both were nevertheless forged in that
collective crucible called human experience.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: M. L. Christmas, M.S., is a writer/editor/communications
professional whose Hannibal-centered Master's thesis involved tourism,
marketing, business and economic development, and world cultures. Her 1999
review for the Mark Twain Forum of Gregg Andrews's _Insane Sisters: Or, the
Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town_ (University of Missouri Press)
won first place, "web page editorial," from Delaware Press Association in
2000. This is her eleventh review for the Mark Twain Forum.